A growing number of packaging companies are becoming more profitable by streamlining their production workflow and leveraging software in other areas such as remote work. As a result, demand for software systems that modernize packaging printing operations is steadily increasing.
MIS programs, remote proofing systems, estimating, scheduling, and prepress software, among others, have been available for years, so what changed? The pandemic. From disrupted supply chains to feverish customer demands, printers are now feeling a deeper sense of urgency to invest in software that makes them more efficient and nimble.
“The number of jobs and the complexity of jobs continue to increase, and people are seeing software as real advantages for their business that allow them to scale without adding people,” says Nick Benkovich, VP portfolio product management at ePS.
In this environment it’s almost impossible to perform manual tasks like scheduling efficiently, even if you could find that scheduler.
“If you want to do a good job producing such short runs you had better start automating as much as you can because trying to do it with more people is problematic,” says Jan De Roeck, director of marketing, industry relations, and strategy at Esko.
Plenty of processes that are mundane can be done with software, and automation is one of the things packaging printers are looking at to safeguard their bottom line. Automation can also be a competitive differentiator. Companies that can turn out an estimate in two to three hours have a better chance of getting the job, De Roeck explains.
It’s really about modernizing operations, says Rob Mayerson president of Label Traxx. “Using technology to become more efficient, to provide better service, to have better information at your fingertips, all these things are really by-products of modernizing and moving away from disjointed processes and offline processes,” he shares.
Cost structures are an area on printers’ radars. “Everything has gone up,” says Craig Press, president of packaging consulting firm Profectus. “Factory costs, repairs, and maintenance, and then, of course, gas was going up and now it’s going back down. “Costs are a lot more unpredictable than they were a few years ago.”
From his perspective, Press is seeing a growing demand for his own proprietary software program that helps companies get a handle on their costs and financial ratios.
Anytime you have large changes in your cost structures — like the last few years — you really need to re-examine your budgets and your financial ratios, as well as what you think the break-even cost is for your presses. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had conversations with companies that haven’t updated their cost ratios in five or 10 years,” he says.
Consumers long ago shifted to online shopping and the convenience of home delivery. COVID only accelerated that trend. When it comes to online shopping, business-to-business clients have their own set of requirements. But e-commerce is difficult to execute properly (and profitably) if a print company hasn’t automated and modernized its processes to maximum efficiency.
For most print and label printers the majority of orders come from business clients reordering items from their inventory of products, many of which may have various versions. If, for example, a label printer is producing ice cream labels, it may have to process several sizes for different containers and flavors. B2B customers also don’t pay for individual transactions by credit card.
“We had to design an online ordering tool for this environment,” says Mayerson. “There’s artwork approval, there’s collaboration, the ability to look at your order history and your full catalog that nobody else can see.”
Brands also deal with more than one online platform, and this cross-channel, go-to-market process requires them to have shots of the packaging available. Furthermore, it’s quite often the case that each platform wants images with different specs. A company producing the actual packaging is in a good position to provide those visuals and offer them as an added-value service, particularly to smaller regional brands. Automating this process is something printers are beginning to consider, says De Roeck.
Viki Blake, VP business development at ICScolor, says the company had been selling its remote color proofing solution to printers before COVID, but mostly to large brands that bought into the product’s capabilities. Printers’ interest had not yet peaked.
Brands, she says, brought printers along to adopting remote proofing. “They want to shave days off the cycle, make late-minute changes, people don’t want to do press approvals anymore, but they don’t want to look at press sheets on an iPhone either,” Blake says. Printers, she continues, are showing more interest in providing the remote solutions their customers need.
“The consumer is becoming younger, and more digitally savvy,” adds Mike Agness, executive VP, Americas, at HYBRID Software. “Their position is, I don’t need to see a Matchprint, I need it tomorrow. The challenge on flexo is that it’s not flat. We make a tool that shows good 3D visualization. The pandemic brought home to us that people might not be sitting around a table trying to approve a new product, so we have to show the product spin and show what it looks like on the shelf.”
In terms of next-level software adoption, Agness cites variable data printing capabilities as a trend that’s gaining traction, along with the adoption of applications like QR codes, that printers are starting to consider.